Playground of the Giants

I’ve been giving megacorporations a whole lot of thought lately. In this article, i’ll be looking at three of them: Microsoft, Google and Apple.

First, let’s delve in to the big G, Google. Google is a verb. How many companies have ever become a verb? “Google that.”. There’s a whole lot of buzz around Google, namely that they are some kind of evil corporation, hellbent on world domination. There are a number of things that attest to this. Google is one of, if not the biggest owner of fiber optic cable in the world. This means, they control a large part of the backbone of the internet. They’ve been quietly buying it up along the years, and i believe they are now in the position of largest owner. The buying started in 2005, if not earlier.

Recently, theybid for a chunk of RF-bandwidth, namely the 700mhz area. This is an area that can be used to operate a mobile telephone network. In the 2007 bidding-competition, this was the C-block. The rules stated, that if bidding on the C block exceeded a certain figure, the winner would have to allow everyone to create applications and devices for that block, effectively opening it up.

“As a result of the auction, consumers whose devices use the C-block of spectrum soon will be able to use any wireless device they wish, and download to their devices any applications and content they wish,” say Richard Whitt and Joseph Faber, two of Google’s Washington-based counsel members, in a post Thursday afternoon.

Google threw in a bid of a cool 4.6 billion dollars right off the bat, thereby unlocking the deal as stated above. They didn’t actually have to pay that much (Verizon ended up actually buying the spectrum for a fair 9.4 billion, which also includes other frequencies), but the fact that they could make the bid, means they did.

Google makes money off advertisement. If you use Firefox, and the noscript plugin (very much recommended), you’ll notice that most sites use a bit of javascript called Google Analytics. This is the little bit of code that follows you around on the web, and generates valuable marketing data about your habits. This way, marketing companies can make very specific ads, or just change the layout and presentation of their ads, based on how millions upon millions of consumers surf. They also use text-ads in applications such as gmail, to look through your mail (scary, right?), and then produce ads based on the content of your mails. Say you’re mailing Tom about a new car, you’ll probably get ads regarding cars, auto accessories, cheaper service-plans..

So my question is, can google make it without the ad-revenues? If i suddenly went around like fucking Santa Claus, and installed Firefox on every last computer in the world, along with adblock and noscript, would google go bancrupt? Probably not. They’ve been adding to their portfolio with things like fiber optics and mobile devices (Android, anyone?). But would it be enough to sustain this behemoth? Who knows. The ultimate goals of Google may only be known to a select few. It’s just a proven fact that when any entity gains a lot of power, that results in trouble. Because what do people with power want? More power.

Chapter two in this post is Microsoft and Apple. Both big healthy companies, with a long-running history of weird products, bad products, and amazing success-stories. But one would probably not be without the other. I’m talking about Apple, receiving money from Microsoft to continue operating. This was in the 90’s. Now what did this result in, initially? Microsoft products were now available on Macs. Programs like Office and Internet Explorer became available on the Mac platform. But this hasn’t quelled the interest for Mac applications, such as iWork and Safari, both of which are living healthy lives of their own. IE isn’t available anymore, and the office version is growing a bit old as well. One can dual-boot a mac in to windows, using Boot Camp. No doubt, also a fruit of this unholy alliance.

CNET recently wrote that Apple “owes” Microsoft 30 billion dollars, and as a side effect, most of their success. Had Microsoft not sponsored Apple, they probably would not have gone on to get a significant market-share in mobile phones, computers and software. The iPod is a household standard, and who hasn’t heard of the iPhone, perhaps the most anticipated product launch of the 00’s. Apple has created a whole breed of geeks. People who follow the word of the Steven, use 100 bucks on their haircuts, drink 10 euro cups of coffee, while surfing wirelesly on their admittedly crippled Mac Air. Whatever they make, these people buy. They do the marketing for Apple. All that’s needed is a few select words, usually starting with “Oh and by the way..”, and the apple fanatics take care of the rest. Blogs, offices and dinner tables everywhere are filled with discussion on their new product, the price and features usually a mere subtopic.  Whatever the price, whatever the problems and obvious deficits, people will buy it. They’ll line up to get it.

Funny how one of the most powerful forces in marketing and design today, depended on one of the industry’s grandfathers. When has a Microsoft product last seen even a fraction of the hype of an Apple launch? Maybe Microsoft should have added a clause to get a share of the marketing genious that is Apple, in exchange for all those moneys? Maybe there were clauses in there that nobody knows about. But they sure have stayed quiet about the whole deal.

I’m making a public statement

I, xxx xxxx hereby declare that if Timo Soini, of the right-wing populist “True Finn”-party gets elected as president of Finland, i will move out of the country within one month of his inauguration.

The stupidity must end.

Expiring veterans/money

This is just a bit of news i picked up elsewhere, it’s probably in all the major news outlets here, so i won’t bother with sources. Check any magazine.

There’s 87 million euros (that’s like a kazillion u.s. dollars) of money that’s been collected by different organisations to benefit the veterans of our wars. There are roughly 67 000 veterans left, and two-thirds of them will die within the next five years, according to studies. This means, that they’d have to start giving out cash at a speedy rate, so that everyone get’s their share. This also means that people who have donated to the cause over the past decades don’t get lied to, and that the money goes where it was collected for.

Let’s get a few things straight. I don’t disrespect veterans, on the contrary. My grandfather is a veteran of WW2, and he lost 6 brothers to russian bombs and bullets. Others in my family had to go in to exile, or spent weeks in bunkers waiting for the firebombings to stop. My family has seen war.

It’s the origanisations i have a problem with. They collect money, yet they are very stringy about where it goes. My grandfather hasn’t seen much in way of support, and for instance rehabilitation has been sporadic at best. Why are they sitting on 87 million euro?

Well, one explanation is that veterans need to be remembered after they have all passed, and i agree totally. But for 87 million you get a whole lot of remembrance for a whole lot of generations. With that kind of money, we could send videos and books  about veterans to every person in the country for a few years.

Most people, including my grandfather, still live in debt, in a small apartment, in conditions less than stellar. He still has his dignity and wisdom, but i still feel we could give more. He’s 87 now, and 5 years is about what i’d give him at most.  It’d be nice to spend those last years not having to worry about bills or payments.

So how about it, guys?

I vote we stop giving any more money to these organisations that say they are benefiting veterans, until they actually start doing so. This discussion has been ongoing for a long long time, and yet, it’s still one of the most popular places to donate money. Let’s just not cheat these people out of the money they’ve rightfully earned, in the last few years of their lives.

Matkakortti Evolved cont.

I actually got a reply from YTV! I asked them three specifying questions, and they answered them all. So the new and updated technical information is:

– The “use once cards” are in fact the lowest of the low, MIFARE Ultralight. No crypto, no brains, no nothing.

– The normal cards are DESfire (first generation), not EV1.

– The encryption method used is 3DES.

I wasn’t expecting a reply, but i got one, and pretty quickly too! So thanks YTV.

Xbox 171109 Update

Microsoft seeded the the Fall update to their Xbox 360 gaming console. The update was significant in that it finally offers the possibility to “rent” movies from the Zune store (i guess in the US they have like Netflicks or whatever as well?).

So naturally, i was a bit excited. One could even say anxious, to see the new update. Well, the update itself was painless, short download. Which leads me to believe it might already have been preloaded in a previous patch and activated now? Who knows.  In any case, two new menuitems appeared, one was for the zune video marketplace. one was for the facebook/twitter  thing. That doesn’t really interest me. I mean, i don’t feel like twittering when i’m playing, and as for some kind of automated twittering, i doubt it’d be of interest to anyone.

“Hey world! Grelbar is playing Need for Speed!!!”. Wohoo.

The Zune marketplace is fairly well laid out. It opens rather quickly after a little loading screen. You can search movies according to genre, name, date, popularity, etc. Most new movies offer either the HD version (around 500 xbox points), or the SD version (240-350 points). Each point is about one euro cent if you buy the points somewhere cheap (say, Ahvenanmaa). So the prices are perfectly in line with those of a brick-and-mortar rental place such as Makuuni, who charge 6 euros for a new movie, and 2-4 euros for an older movie. I’d rather get it streamed than actually walk to the store, so this might be a service that i’ll grow to like.

The only problem i saw was the selection. There were maybe a few dozen movies. And i’d seen most of them (then, we do have a serious DVD addiction, with a collection of about 500 authentic movies), so this was to be expected. But there was maybe one movie from 2009, and the rest were like golden oldies such as Beetlejuice, Matrix, Lethal Weapons 1,2,3 and 4, etc. Good movies, no doubt, but i think everyone has seen them at this point.

Please microsoft, and finland, give us some real new movies…..

I actually read through (most) of the EULA, which is… uh.. well, it has 28 sub-topics. It’s long. It details how Microsoft isn’t liable for really anything, and can change anything at will. Kind of like Monday’s Penny-Arcade. So anyway, they do say that “content will vary based on the geographic location of the subscriber”. Which means, that though Finland was finally lucky enough to get in on the fun, it’ll probably be a while before we get movies that are even borderline new.

So my general review of the update is: “Promising, but in it’s current state: bleh”

Matkakortti Evolved

Many of you may have heard about the new Matkakortti, being rolled out as of last week (10.11.2009). Ads for the new card have appeared all over the place, and urge people to change the card during their next re-charge. The new card has a nice flashy green graphic printed on it, no doubt to reflect the new eco-features of the card.

So what changes? According to YTV, the previous blue cards have reached the end of their life-cycle. “As with credit- and debit-cards, the cards have to be changed out every few years”. Also, the new cards are now ISO 14443A compliant (specifications for RFID cards). I have a funny feeling the last cards were compliant as well, but there’s no data on this. They were made by Mifare as well (as the new cards), so i think they were compliant.

The color of the card changes, but also, the type chages. The old cards were MIFARE classic. This is a card that has a 48-bit encryption key, that is seeded based on the “start-date” of the card, i.e. when it was first turned on. This system has been broken multiple times. To give you an idea of how easy it is, it takes about 12 seconds on a standard laptop computer to break the built-in Crypto-1 encryption scheme.

The cards are ASIC based, and have a very limited storage space. There are 1K and 4K versions of the card, and accounting for read-only data put in by the manufacturer, the de-facto storage space of these cards was 752 bytes and 3440 bytes respectively. That’s a whole lot already!

The new cards are based on later revisions of MIFARE technology. There are two basic types that will be rolled out now (the specific models are not listed, but i’m going to find out one way or another):

  • MIFARE DESfire. This is the regular “multiple use” card that most of us use every day. More on this later.
  • MIFARE Ultralight. This is the “use once” tourist card, which can be charged once, and then thrown away after use.

DESfire is a new card type that MIFARE came out with in 2002. There is an EV1 (evolution 1) version of the card, which was released in 2006 and offers more options and better crypto. Which system is used here, i’m not sure as i said, but i’ll find out. This is an entirely new card compared to the old stupid cards. They sport a real NXP made microprocessor, and more memory. There are 2, 4 and 8KB versions of the card. They come with a propietary DESfire operating system, which uses a real directory/file structure in the storage space. The crypto is upgraded from “Crypto-1”, using a 48bit key, to a minimum triple-DES, i.e. 3x56bits keylength, and up to a 128-bit AES in the EV1 variant. The NXP microprocessor is 8051 based, and has separate hardware crypto-accelerators for both AES and 3DES, which makes the crypto transactions even faster than before.

Ultralight is the use-once version of the cards. Cheaper to manufacture, it’s apparently made out of some kind of thick paper. There are also two versions of this card, the  Ultralight, and the  Ultralight C, which are from 2001 and 2008 respectively. The plain-jane version offers no crypto at all, and 512 bits (64 bytes) of memory. The C variant offers crypto, more storage-space, and ISO 14443 compliance. It is highly likely, that the version being rolled out is the C version, because it has features that make it suitable for mass transportation (i.e. abrasion resistance and crypto).

So why are the cards being changed for real? I’ll offer a few guesses. One, is that the new cards are cheaper. That’s a big thing when it comes to public transport and anything government funded. The Apollo astronauts reminded each other that they are going to the moon in a craft built by the company that made the cheapest offer. I’m not saying cheap is bad in this case though.

The new cards are also more ecological. Also a big thing in government projects, and easier to sell to consumers. The cards are either made out of bio-degradable plastic, or paper.

All methods of public transport will be fitted with GPS. Some already have it (trains, trams and some busses), but i suppose they’ll be rolling this out to every damn thing. This makes tracking not only the vehicle easy, but also tracking you. They can stamp your card with exactly the stop you got on. Where you got off is another matter entirely, but in any case. The bus and the reader knows where you are, and when you get on, the card will retain this information, along with personally identifiable information. This information is said not to be readable by regular kiosks and other recharge outlets, but only by ticket inspectors or law enforcement “should the legal need arise”. In any case, the expanded memory and processing capability, plus the new crypto, make the cards very hard to hack, and capable of storing hoards of information, and not just a “one travel” buffer, which contains your last transit. This of course, is pure speculation on my part.

Why replace an already working system? Well, that’s anybody’s guess, and the site they put out doesn’t really give a specific reason. The fact that the new cards are cheaper, is a small issue, when we consider that there are already what.. a million cards in circulation that now all have to be replaced? Expanding the system to new areas? Okay, but why not just expand the current, tried and tested (and broken :)) system? The cards are at the end of their lifespan? Why? My card is seven years old and it works just fine. I’ve had it in my pocket, my wallet and god knows where. There are no moving parts, and no exposed chips, as with regular smart cards. The exposed components tend to wear out and that is a good reason to change your card. But it doesn’t apply to the Matkakortti. Sure, if you bend the card, it’ll snap, but i bet the new cards are just the same.

I also have a hard time believing that standards compliance is a reason for the overhaul. The old cards are based on the same basic technology, i.e. RFID, which should in itself adhere to ISO 14443. If it didn’t, okay, but adhering to standards isn’t a benefit for the consumer in this case. Everyone is forced to either use the cards, or pay each trip with cash, which leaves little options. The standard defines how well the card should withstand physical abuse, but again, i stress that my card is still working after seven years. Abuse-resistance was not an issue with the old cards either.

So the Fox Mulder in me deduces that this is just a way to track us even more closely. The hacking of cards wasn’t an issue in Finland, at least not that i heard of, but with the new cards, this becomes practically impossible, unless there are vulnerabilities in the implementation of the crypto, or predictability in the key-generation (or exchange) as with the previous system. This removes any chance of an “open and fair” system, meaning that i can’t buy a MIFARE reader, and dig out the data that they have store on me personally, on the card. I’m not even looking for free travel or some such shit, i just want to know how the system stores and uses my data.

I’ll be following up on this as i get my hands on the new card. I’ll be retaining a few of the older cards, just to make comparisons, should such an opportunity arise. I’m still in the market for a MIFARE reader, but i haven’t gotten off my lazy ass and bought one yet.

Source to my rambles are:

Nuevos Hardwareos

A client was generous enough to donate me an old laptop to play with. It’s a Compaq EVO N610C. You may remember if from about 8 years ago, or so? It’s got that silver wlan antenna thingy behind the screen?

compaq n610c

Yeah. That one.

Anyway, it’s a nice piece of work despite being old. It’s a very first generation pentium 4 mobile, which means it eats battery like a kid eats cookies. 512MB ram, 40 gig hard drive. Old, but works fine. Put Xubuntu 9.10 on it, XFCE works just fine, and plays DVDs too. 14″ screen.

I’m gonna be playing around with the wireless some more, since it has a good atheros chipset, and a proper antenna (with a ready plug for an even bigger external antenna). I’m thinking this might become my wardriving laptop, or something in that order.

Modem Maintenance Vol 2.

So, the story continues.

I’m seriously beginning to suspect the damn Linksys. It’s gotta be the Linksys.

B kindly provided me with a Zyxel 660HW, and a Telehell 501, out of which the Telewell works fine. Zyxel seems fucked somehow. Telewell handshakes at about 10/2, which is roughly the same as before (with the linksys) though a little below. No weird packet loss, and no weird disconnects so far. I’m still holding my vote on this one, but it’s looking better.

As for the speed, they just said it might be a bad pair going to my appartment, or that my neighbor got DSL and the pair traveling next to mine up the building, is giving it like.. interference or something. The DSLAM would connect at 18/2.5 if only my end co-operated. Not much they can do about the shitty old copper in my house… Damn it. I guess i’ll just have to wait for the mandatory fiber connection, due no later than 2015 😀